The Washington Post has been working on a project during the last year titled “What Unites Us,” a compilation of portraiture and audio interviews conducted with 102 people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., exploring the bonds that unite all Americans. Published on Jan. 17, the Post explains that they asked “people to contemplate what it means to be American in this time of upheaval and rapid change,” and that the interviews “reveal commonalities and convictions that bridge geography, gender, occupation, race or religion—an indication that perhaps what unites Americans to one another is as powerful as what divides them.”

Among the two people profiled from the state of New Mexico was Rabbi Berel Levertov, co-director of Santa Fe Jewish Center-Chabad. “I feel we are all part of the same country and it’s a land of opportunity for everybody,” he told the Post.

In the audio, Levertov, 48, who has lived in Santa Fe with his wife, Devorah Leah, and children since 1996, spoke of the persecution his family faced as Lubavitcher Chassidimin the Soviet Union, from which his father narrowly escaped in 1946.

“My grandfather . . . was actually killed by the Russian [government] for practicing his religion, practicing Judaism, and actively engaging others to do so in Moscow,” he explains.

Levertov’s grandfather and namesake was Dov Ber “Berel” Levertov, known popularly as Berel Kabilaker for the village of Kabiliak (today Kobeliaky, Ukraine) in Poltava region, where he briefly served as rabbi and shochet (ritual kosher slaughterer) in 1907-08. After serving in a number of rabbinical positions in Ukraine and Belarus, all in the Russian Empire, Levertov moved to Moscow in 1922, where he would become a pillar of Chabad’s underground Jewish network. To support his growing family but still be able to avoid working on Shabbat, Levertov purchased knitting machines that he operated from home as part of an artel.

Dov Ber “Berel” Levertov, known popularly as Berel Kabilaker
Dov Ber “Berel” Levertov, known popularly as Berel Kabilaker

The family lived in Moscow’s Marina Roscha neighborhood, where the elder Levertov prayed daily at the wooden Marina Roscha synagogue (constructed in 1927), serving as gabbai of its Chabad Chassidic prayer quorum and an influential leader of the congregation.

“At the end of World War II, for example, he felt it important for the shul to have its own official rabbi, suggesting Rabbi Nosson Nota Olevsky, an elderly Torah scholar—not a Chabad Chassid—who had been in exile in Siberia. His suggestion was accepted and Rabbi Olevsky remained in this position for many years until his passing,” wrote his late son, Rabbi Moshe Levertov, in his memoirs, The Man Who Mocked the KGB [available in its entirety online at Chabad.org]. Moshe Levertov was Santa Fe Rabbi Berel Levertov’s father, and as a founder and leader of Lishkas Ezras Achim—an organization based in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., that sent massive amounts of religious and material aid to Soviet Jews beginning in the 1960s—an unsung hero of the Soviet Jewry movement.

Surprisingly, Soviet authorities allowed the wooden Marina Roscha Synagogue to be constructed in the Moscow neighborhood in 1927, and it remained open through the duration of communism. During his time there before and after World War II, Levertov was the central power broker there, ensuring Jewish life continue no matter how difficult. His stubborn leadership was recognized by the NKVD, which took active measures to stop him, culminating with his 1947 arrest. The synagogue, seen here circa 1987, was burnt down by arsonists in the 1990s. (Photo: Nathan Brusovani (Bar), www.brusovani.com).
Surprisingly, Soviet authorities allowed the wooden Marina Roscha Synagogue to be constructed in the Moscow neighborhood in 1927, and it remained open through the duration of communism. During his time there before and after World War II, Levertov was the central power broker there, ensuring Jewish life continue no matter how difficult. His stubborn leadership was recognized by the NKVD, which took active measures to stop him, culminating with his 1947 arrest. The synagogue, seen here circa 1987, was burnt down by arsonists in the 1990s. (Photo: Nathan Brusovani (Bar), www.brusovani.com).

Moshe’s father, the elder Berel Levertov, who was for a time the only mohel (circumcisor) in Moscow, slaughtered his own chickens to ensure kashrut and stubbornly refused to allow his children to attend Soviet schools—all this taking place in the 1930s, amid the height of Stalinist bloodshed. Surviving the war in Soviet Uzbekistan, he returned to Moscow, where his reputation as the true powerbroker at the Marina Roscha synagogue grew and immediately caught the attention of the NKVD. Rather than risk the entire operation, he decided against joining the Lubavitcher Chassidim escaping the Soviet Union in 1946 via Lvov, opting to send his sons—Sholom and Moshe—and himself remaining in Moscow.

In Sept. 1947, the brothers received a letter from a sister in the Soviet Union telling them not to write anymore. “Father is very sick, and has been taken to hospital,” she wrote, from which they gathered that he had been arrested.

Years later, Moshe would hear that shortly prior to his arrest, “Father was walking with someone when they noticed they were being followed. ‘I don’t care what they do to me now,’ Father told his companion resolutely. ‘I’ve already sent my sons out of this accursed land. I have nothing more to fear from the police.’ ”

‘Remembering Where We Came From’

According to documents uncovered in KGB archives following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Levertov had been under close watch between 1945-47, the subject of constant informants, as attested by pages of evidence in his KGB file.

“Levertov is back to his old ways,” reads one note written by an officer named Fuchs, and dated 11/4/46. “He attends synagogue, performs circumcisions, and continues serving as a ritual slaughterer.”

His Aug. 12, 1947 arrest order states, among other accusations, that “Levertov B. Sh. is the head of the illegal anti-Soviet organization of Chassidim, leader of whom is the Tzaddik Schneersohn [referring to the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory], who lives abroad.”

“What Unites Us” is a compilation of portraiture and audio interviews conducted with 102 people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., exploring the bonds that unite Americans.
“What Unites Us” is a compilation of portraiture and audio interviews conducted with 102 people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., exploring the bonds that unite Americans.

On April 8, 1948, Levertov was sentenced to 10 years in “correctional labor camps,” and sent to TemLag, from which he was later transferred to DubrovLag, where he died on Sept. 1, 1949.

“My father narrowly escaped and he instilled in me the importance of remembering where we came from and how in the United States we can practice religion freely and without anything holding us back,” Santa Fe’s Rabbi Berel Levertov told the Post. “We shouldn’t be afraid to practice religion.”

See the entire “Washington Post” project here, where Levertov’s interview is categorized under the “Freedom and Fundamental Rights” subsection.